The canes of the raspberry bushes had grown tall over the course of the long dry autumn, and now, bowed under the combined weight of their red ripening berries and the long-awaited snow, they arched in over the path and rattled at the roofs of the travelling wagons. The outriders were already dismounting in the castle courtyard by the time the wagons had laboured long enough through the sucking mud of the narrow path to heave into sight of the main house. A great crowd had come together into a flurry of sound and colour: like dye spreading thread by thread through thirsty cloth, the householders in their coats of crimson slipped in among horses and wagons and mingled with the rough grey riding-cloaks of the travellers. Boxes were hefted from the steaming backs of horses who chuffed and stamped in the sleet: tall swords and snake-shafted naginata were slung between shoulder and shoulder and hustled away into the shelter of the house. Shrieking her delight as she dodged barrel after box, dog following close at her heels, a girl ran barefoot through the mud.
‘We didn’t know you’d be back so soon!’ she said. ‘Are you all alright?’
The man did not answer. The dog had found a mouse in the mud and was worrying at it nearby: the man knelt, slowly, and put his hand to the dog’s head. It leapt up joyfully, began to gnaw at his wrist. He rubbed its ears.
Slowly, the girl said, ‘Where is he?’
The man jerked his head back towards the wagons. The first body had not yet been unloaded. Someone ducked out from under the canvas covering, a great heap of bandages held in her arms. The blood ran dark in the wet.
Some years before, a particularly violent earthquake had laid waste to the east wing of the castle, and several rooms still stood in ruins, open to the sky and seamed with moss. A heavy stillness lay like light over the long blue-bordered waterways. Great lilies with heads of flame and red tongues grew up in clumps between the ferns that clustered close around the edges of the old pond. Lionlike fish still swung there in the cracked channels, rainfed and glassy-skinned, and birds with breasts so green they might have sprung straight from out the stone of the mossy walls flickered from bough to bough of the low-bent plum trees. Alone amid the tumbled stone, a single figure sat with his chin on his knee and frowned at the pages of a little book.
‘You’re terrible at hiding from me,’ said a voice from the shadows of the broken porch. ‘You always come here. It’s almost like you want me to find you.’
‘Not my fault you’re a damn busybody with no respect for people’s privacy,’ Kurogane said: turned a page, yawned. The air was cool still with the scent of morning, and long flat lines of sunlight striped the sky between cloud and cloud. He shivered briefly. ‘What do you want?’
‘I want to say hello!’ Fai said. ‘I haven’t seen you in two months! I was so lonely! And so bored!’
Kurogane lifted a shoulder, did not so much as glance behind himself. ‘You were gone?’ he asked: paused a moment for consideration, came to a conclusion. ‘Guess it was quieter.’
‘You terrible old man!’ Fai cried. ‘You didn’t miss me at all!’
His voice echoed sharp across the ruined courtyard, and a little churring congregation of birds took fright and darted low across the water. The koi under their black skin of water shrugged and surged. Skipping down the steps, Fai caught at Kurogane’s arm and gave it a petulant little tug: unbalanced him sufficiently that he half-slipped from the stone where he sat, had to set down his book to steady himself. He caught the smell of something sweet and clean, a particular skinscent familiar as the shape of his own shadow, and felt his lips twitch up.
‘At least give me a welcome-back hug!’ Fai demanded, still clinging warm to his arm. ‘It’s tradition.’
Kurogane put up a very good show of trying to shake him off. ‘Tradition my ass,’ he muttered. ‘You just want to cop a feel. Oi!’
With a swift flick of the wrist, Fai had snatched the book from his hand, and was dangling it dangerously over the pond. ‘A kiss!’ he crowed. ‘A kiss buys it back! Ah - !’
A brick gave under his foot. For a moment he teetered over the water, the pages of the book fluttering like little wings in the light, his eyes wide and startled and luminously blue. Then Kurogane stepped forward, got his arm around Fai’s waist: won him back from gravity, pulled him in close. Fai’s breath caught audibly, and he looked up as he steadied himself, fingers closing on cloth. Kurogane leaned in and kissed him. For a long while there was nothing but the heavy swell of Fai’s breath in his arms, and Fai’s mouth, and Fai’s hair, and Fai’s waist under his palms. He closed his eyes against the brightness: drew back, pressed their foreheads together, breathed in.
‘I knew you missed me,’ Fai murmured against his lips.
Kurogane felt himself beginning to grin, fought it back. ‘What’s your name again?’ he asked: leaned round, plucked the book from Fai’s hand, shrugged himself out of the embrace and loped off. ‘See you,’ he called over his shoulder.
He was expecting the running leap, but not the arms flung clumsy around his neck, or the tongue that unfortunately found itself rammed halfway down his ear. ‘No escape!’ Fai cried, half-deafening him, and promptly began planting loud wet kisses all over his cheek. ‘I missed you so much! There was no one there to be grumpy at me! How am I supposed to get anything done when no one’s being grumpy at me?’
‘Get off, you public menace!’ Kurogane yelled, extricating himself with difficulty and shoving Fai away.
Undeterred, Fai skipped after him and seized his hand, swung it determinedly between them. ‘Aren’t you going to ask me how it went?’ he sang.
Kurogane gave up. ‘Alright, alright. How did it go?’
The hallways here were empty, and in many places still remained open to the air: here and there patches of bamboo grew up through the slats in the floor, and little striped field mice hung their nests from the arms of reeds. They wandered without direction, through old rooms split by earthquakes and reclaimed by birds, where swallows built their red nests among the eaves and dragonflies hummed and spun over puddles of grey rainwater. Though broken, the old walls and secret rooms had to them a sense of serenity that Kurogane had come to appreciate over the course of the past season. Restricted to the palace and lonelier than he liked to admit, he had gone exploring, and had found the stillness of the ruined wing something of a comfort. He loved only one very specific kind of chaos, and without it he preferred peace. Fai broke that peace cheerfully apart, talking loud and long, skipping ahead every few steps to say something excitable, falling behind a moment as he pondered a point, waving an arm by way of illustration. Kurogane could not say he minded.
‘I do think it went well, though – they seemed open to more talks next year, anyway,’ Fai was saying. ‘I liked a lot of the people there, and the prince’s counsellors certainly seemed honest – very open, you know, no flattery, no double-talking. That’s what I thought, anyway.’
‘You were probably right,’ Kurogane said. ‘You’re a good judge of character. I’d trust your opinion of anyone.’
‘You’re better,’ Fai reminded him, drily. ‘Believe me, you’re incredibly hard to lie to.’
Kurogane snorted: knocked their hands together in mute acknowledgement of old grievances long forgiven. ‘I’m crap at diplomacy, though,’ he observed. ‘I’m not sitting through talks about border disputes for two months. Get to the bit where we start bashing heads in.’
‘Such a violent puppy! The whole point of these talks is so that we don’t have to bash heads in.’ Fai paused a moment to pluck a flower from the green fingers of a low-twining spill of asagao: found a fat kumabachi nestled inside, took it onto his finger and examined its furry thorax all glittery with pollen. ‘Even if you’re an undiplomatic old brawler, I would still have liked you there,’ he said, as the bee flexed its stiff glossy wings: added, as though it did not matter, ‘I missed you terribly.’
‘You’ve said that like six times now,’ Kurogane said, feeling his face grow warm. ‘And quit playing with bugs.’
‘It’s important to make friends with bees,’ Fai informed him, as the little creature rattled into flight and spiralled lazily away through the grey air. He watched it a while, fingers still held tight in Kurogane’s own. In a light, easy voice, he added, ‘How are you?’
Kurogane thought about his answer for a long time as they walked. Their shadows slid before them over the warped wooden floors, pulled eerily out of shape. ‘Good,’ he said at last, and paused before the door of an old bedroom: took Fai’s other hand into his own, looked beyond blond hair into the flat black interior of the ruins. ‘Been resting a lot,’ he admitted, shirking the weight of that blue gaze in favour of speaking to the shadows. ‘Bored out of my mind, but. You told me not to do anything stupid.’
‘Nothing else? You’d tell me if you’d had another attack? Or if you were in pain? You’d tell me?’
‘I’d tell you. I won’t say it’s been easy, this summer. It hurts, still, sometimes. But I’m alright.’
Something glinted beyond the doorway, just over Fai’s shoulder: he strained through the gloom to see it. Wind shifted cloud, and a pale wing of light touched the doorway, beat back a little of the darkness so that Kurogane could see inside an old half-mirror, ragged-edged and sagging. A face frowned out at him, deep-scored and stark, craggy with years after the fashion of weather-bitten rock. The hair had taken on the couple-coloured grizzling of grey and brindled black, and stood up in a raintouched shock that he almost did not recognise. He met his own eyes with obstinacy, forced himself to take stock of the several sharp lines that shadowed them. That bright edge of mirrorglass gleamed salt-white and expectant in the emptiness. He had not considered himself too closely since the first attack, and although he had known that he had lost weight, he had not liked to look too long at the hollows of his cheeks, the new gauntness of his old skin. Seeing himself suddenly through Fai’s fresh returning eyes, he felt for the first time something other than anger at his own weakness. He swallowed.
Fingers found his face, drew his gaze back from the dark. ‘I’m glad you’re alright,’ Fai said, softly.
‘Just don’t get all emotional and say you were worried about me,’ Kurogane huffed.
Fai’s eyes creased up at the corners. ‘Why would I waste time worrying about a naughty puppy like you?’
The hand Kurogane put up to that fair unflinching cheek was spotted dark and sharp-edged with age. Birds moved in the rafters overhead, jostled a rain of leaves down from their nests. Still the uncertain sun shone on that edge of glass in the shadows, stingingly bright to sight as a scratch on thin skin. He saw it even after he closed his eyes against the kiss that was pressed warm and adoring to his lips: a gash of inverted jittering crimson, a stutter-cut throat in the dark.
Tall stripes of shadow split panel from panel of polished cedarwood in the long smoke-scented hall where silk swung listless on the little wind. ‘All in all, I don’t think there’s too much to be concerned about at this point,’ Tomoyo said: tucked her sleeve neatly out of the way and swept a wet press of ink down the page. ‘Kotori tells me that she has been struggling to see anything definite for some while now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad, just that events may be in constant fluctuation. A great many futures, all competing to come to fruition, can cloud the vision of even the best dreamseers.’
Lounging at the foot of the seven red steps of the imperial throne with very little regard for formality, Kurogane let out a wide yawn and began cutting around the top of a persimmon with his little black-hilted blade. ‘If you’re not worried, I’m not worried,’ he said: split off a sliver of golden flesh, chewed it thoughtfully. ‘Still say we bash some heads in, though. Pre-emptively.’
Fai looked up from where he was yawning over a map of the complex river system surrounding the castle, reed stylus lodged in one corner of his mouth. ‘Ooh! Ooh! Yes! I’ll come too, and we can bring all the new recruits on the warpath with us, and we can stay up late sitting around the campfire talking about all your most embarrassing moments, and I’ll teach them that song you like so much, you know, I know a song that will really make you mad, I know a song that will really make you mad, I know a song that will really make you mad, and this is how it goes! I know a song that will –’
Kurogane flicked the stem of his persimmon at him. ‘Never mind, I’ve lost interest,’ he sighed: squinted at Fai in sudden suspicion. ‘Wait, did you do that on purpose?’
Tomoyo snorted, then returned her attention to her calligraphy with an expression of great and careful piety. Fai, to his credit, smirked only very slightly. ‘I think I know how to manage you by now,’ he said, and scribbled something down next to a loop of green ink. ‘Have we ever tried moving the fifteenth garrison thirty kilometres upstream, into that little sheltered oxbow near the old bridge? There’s still a disused fort there.’
‘He really does growl when he’s angry,’ Tomoyo observed, as Kurogane began muttering darkly in the back of his throat. ‘And no, Fai-san, we haven’t. Talk to Souma-san about it when you get the chance, won’t you? The fifteenth can’t stay in that old death trap of a barracks for another winter.’
‘I do not growl.’
‘Oh, yes you do!’ Fai sung cheerfully, rolling over his maps and scooting across the lacquered floor to lean on Kurogane’s shoulder. ‘That’s why the children all call you the Watch Dog of Shirasagi, you know!’
‘No one calls me that,’ Kurogane grumbled, and then frowned when Tomoyo coughed into her brushes. ‘Do they?’
‘I might have heard one or two high-spirited young persons saying something like it on occasion,’ she admitted, tucking one long strand of snow-white hair delicately behind her ear. ‘Or all of them saying something exactly like it all the time.’
‘I’ve got a dragon sword! Right here! My whole thing is dragons! Not dogs!’ Kurogane complained. ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been married to this idiot for thirty years.’
‘Thirty-two, actually,’ Fai corrected him, with a loving poke to the cheek. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun!’
Kurogane shook Fai off and returned his attention to his persimmon. ‘I regret every second of it,’ he said, slicing furiously at the golden rind. Mouth full, he glanced up at Tomoyo to add, ‘Can’t you make a new law forbidding people to use dumbass nicknames?’
‘That would be a grave abuse of my powers,’ she said, and gave a long looping flick of her brush. ‘Also, Kamui thinks it’s funny.’
‘Of course we have to keep your precious great-great-great-nephew happy.’
Tomoyo threw an inkstone at him. It caught him neatly on the eyebrow, and he yelped. Fai snickered with the scandalised delight of the disloyal. ‘That’s one great, thank you,’ Tomoyo sang. ‘Accuracy is important, dear!’
‘Last time I was in here with the two of you, you wouldn’t shut up about non-violent problem-solving, and here you are throwing things,’ Kurogane reminded them. He shoved the last of his persimmon unceremoniously into Fai’s mouth and hoisted himself onto his feet with only minimal creaking. ‘Whatever. I’ve got to go drill the kids.’
‘Don’t bite anybody, Mr Watch Dog!’ Fai called around his mouthful of fruit, and waved after him as he strode down the long red hallway, pulling shadows behind him and grumbling as he went. Fai dropped his arm slowly as the doors closed: sat for a moment with sweetness spreading heavy over his tongue as the echoes of Kurogane’s footsteps grew grey and faded. The weather had been unseasonably hot for autumn, and a thin stripe of sweat was working its way down the line of his spine, but he shivered all the same.
‘Oof! I think we’ve been sitting still for much too long. Time for a break!’ Tomoyo said, and left her seat atop the stairs: stretched and yawned, came to Fai’s side. ‘Up you get.’
Fai shook his attention from the doorway, offered Tomoyo a vague smile. ‘As my princess commands.’
He took her arm with good grace, and followed her lead as she drew him down through the red heavy air. The breeze that stirred the hangings was a sickly thing, and did little to dislodge the thickness of the incense that coiled around the rafters: the sky outside, visible in bright bars beyond the smokeheld silk and shadows, was overcast with a curious layer of sticky grey cloud that only redoubled the heat. He counted their footsteps under his breath. There was a taste like magic on the back of the wind, acrid as burning hair, and he could not think clearly for the heat. The sweetness of the persimmon had already turned sour.
‘He’s been doing fine,’ Tomoyo remarked, after a full five minutes of distracted silence on Fai’s part. ‘Truly. He’s in remarkably good health.’
Fai blinked, and looked down in confusion to find that she was watching him, pale eyes kind and steady in their nest of crooked lines. ‘I was worried,’ he admitted: frowned. ‘I still am.’
‘I know.’ She leaned into him, soft-shouldered and small, and he caught the smell of jasmine and amber that fell from her close-braided grey hair. Something in his chest unfolded like a flower when he looked at her, and comfort came over him all at once. ‘I’m sorry I had to send you away so soon after he fell ill, but –’
He shook his head. ‘I do my duty to my princess,’ he said, and worked up a more respectable smile for her sake, pressed her hand tight. ‘I missed you, you know!’
‘Me, too. I had no one to play go with except Tohru, and you know how she sulks when she doesn’t win.’
‘She always seems to let Saya-chan win, though,’ Fai observed, smirking.
Tomoyo drew in a sharp excited breath through her nose and flapped her hands madly. ‘Oh, but you don’t know!’ she said, sounding at once scandalised and gleeful as she clung to Fai’s wrist. ‘Wait until I tell you what Saya did!’
Fai laughed. He got Tomoyo’s other hand into his own and swung them back and forth excitedly. ‘Did she confess her love with dance and poetry?’
‘No – well, there was poetry involved, but first you have to understand what happened when Tohru accidentally set Souma’s hair on fire –’
‘What? Why do I always miss all the fun? Tell me everything.’
Tomoyo bounced from foot to foot, opened her mouth to speak: then swung round in surprise as footsteps came echoing briskly across the long lacquered floor. A girl came hurrying towards them, a dog that was not quite real following at her feet: when she passed across the shadow of a pillar, it dissolved itself briefly into darkness, then reformulated itself in sunlight. She was one of the younger palace ninja, Fai knew: a sweet girl, very young, very freshly recruited.
‘There’s been an assault on the borders,’ she announced, without any formalities, eyes flicking frantically between Tomoyo and Fai. The
‘A patrol was attacked before dawn two days ago. Last night the garrison on the north-east bridge was hit. We lost nearly forty men.’
A nervous shake of the head: ‘They came from Tatsuno prefecture.’
Fai frowned. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked reflexively.
For answer, the girl held out a scroll.
Tomoyo took it: read it slowly and calmly. Her expression never once shifted. ‘This is a formal declaration of their secession from Imperial rule,’ she said, finally. ‘They have announced their intention to operate as an independent state, and demand the return of land that they claim is theirs by right of ancestry. They’ve already sent troops in to reclaim it.’
‘But they - they agreed to hold off until the talks in the spring,’ Fai protested. ‘I don’t understand. It went so well –’
‘They wanted to catch us off-guard,’ Tomoyo told him, softly. ‘You did your best. Don’t blame yourself. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tricked us.’
‘But – it’s autumn,’ the girl put in here: looked taken aback at her own impudence in speaking out of turn, rallied nevertheless to her point. ‘Isn’t it, you know, isn’t it too late in the year to move against us?’
Something moved in the shadows towards the back of the throne-room, and through the thick red air Fai caught the edge of a grey magic, very gentle, very sad: a sudden scent of clear water, and a sound of waves. The dreamseer Saya was there, quite unexpectedly, as though she had stepped fresh from a dreamscape: and indeed, her long ghostly hair did not seem entirely solid, and rippled on a tide that was not there. She gave the girl a friendly little wave, and inclined her head to Tomoyo.
She said, ‘Not if they have a weather mage.’
By evening the heat had become oppressive. The wind crept about like a little limping creature, steeped in a stink of imbalance so thick that even Kurogane, spellblind and numb to most magic, could feel the hair on the back of his neck prickling in disquiet as he picked at the lacing of his lamellar. He had not worn full armour since the spring, when a terrified and fumbling medic had spent nearly twenty minutes struggling to prise him free of his cuirass while his heart refused stubbornly to beat. He rubbed a fleck of mud from black lacquer and tried very hard not to shout.
‘What are you suggesting?’ he managed, evenly. ‘That I stay here?’
‘Someone needs to protect Tomoyo,’ Fai said, without turning around.
His tone was soft, but the set of his shoulders in the red light of evening was angular and unforgiving. There was a finality to the silhouette of his back that Kurogane recognised and hated, an ugly and unkind terror in the way he tapped a single finger on the edge of the door. ‘Yes, I need to protect her from the lying bastards waiting at the border,’ Kurogane snapped, riled suddenly to attack. ‘You can’t ask me to sit this out.’
‘Yes, I can,’ Fai answered, his voice so smooth and so composed that Kurogane’s hands curled reflexively into fists. ‘I can ask you to take care of yourself. I have the right.’
‘So you think I’m not strong enough?’ Kurogane countered. ‘I know I’m – old, I know I’m not how I used to be, but that doesn’t mean I’m helpless.’
Fai’s finger stilled. The silence stretched out like a shadow. He stood flat as a figure on a vase, the noise of his breathing very loud in the red hot room. ‘I’m not saying you’re helpless,’ he said at last, speaking each black word as though slotting it into place in a poem. ‘I’m saying that you have had two heart attacks this year and I cannot lose you.’
Kurogane said nothing. The lamellar between his finger and thumb felt suddenly friable as dry clay, the hard red leather laces that held it together worn almost to thread. It would not stop an arrow, or the blade of a sword: and nothing on earth would keep his heart beating once it chose not to.
After a very long time, Fai turned from the doorway, drew in a breath that was loud as a shout in the stillness. ‘At least let me come with you.’
‘So that you can protect me?’
He knew the frantic stubbornness in Fai’s face, knew the bitter twisted-up frustration of the fight against death, and it was to spare them both that he said, at once gentle and unkind, ‘I don’t need that from you. I don’t need that from anyone. I can take care of myself.’
‘Let me help.’
‘I don’t need you pitying me,’ Kurogane explained with great patience.
‘I thought I was supposed to be the unreasonable one!’ Fai snapped. ‘Why are you being like this?’
‘Why don’t you understand?’ Kurogane snapped back. ‘This is my duty! I’m old and I’m half-useless and I’m stuck training kids! Don’t think I don’t know how pathetic that is! This is all I have left!’
‘You have me,’ Fai said then, still in that stiff, scattering tone, pressing his love into black paint and stamping it frank across the dying light.
There came no answer. Kurogane looked down doggedly at his hands. The right was a greyish shrivelling thing, brown spotted skin ruddled thick with veins. The left was perfect, untouched by time, half his own age and twice as strong as living bone. He folded it into a fist. After several seconds, Fai nodded, as though to himself, and walked away.
Kurogane finished with his armour, then moved on to polishing Ginryuu. Evening seeped slowly into the air, until the sky outside showed white, then grey, then cooling blue. He lit tapers from the brazier outside and continued his work until his neck began to ache: then set his sword aside and sat staring out into the dark garden. Some days he woke feeling curiously lopsided, heavy about the heart and shakier than memory, while the clever circuitry of his left arm thrilled still with power, free of the sharp shooting pains that plagued his right-hand knuckles and obedient to his will in a way that the rest of his body had begun to forget. That small addictive surge of remembered power was in part what pressed him into recklessness: that mocking reminder not only of steady handsome flesh that had faded, but also of the love he had proved in losing it. He remembered the simplicity of the strength it had cost him to save Fai’s life, to sever shoulder from sinew and break bone, and struggled to be certain that he would be able do it again. His bravery had not failed. His loyalty had not lessened. Only his body had betrayed him.
Little spills of lantern-light came and went in the hallways outside, each attended by a flurry of black footsteps like moths. From somewhere far across the garden came the sound of a shamisen, and the occasional blur of genteel murmurs. Kurogane shrugged himself unwillingly into a thin yukata and pinched out the tapers, lay back on his futon and counted the rafters in disquiet. Though some relief from the awful warmth of the day, the night had nothing to it of the thunder he had hoped the heat might bring, and the empty space beside him left him feeling more lopsided than any imbalance of the body. It was a thing between himself and his pride, still, his need to stand unchallenged and in command: nothing of personal vanity, only the certainty that his function was to protect. It occurred to him, gradually and long after midnight, that in order to protect Tomoyo, he had to protect himself as well. He rather thought that he had known that in his youth, and hated to think that old men could be stupid as well as soft.
Towards morning, Kurogane found himself startled out of a dim unpleasant doze by the sound of the screen door sliding back. He held himself still as a shadow crossed his heart in the halflight of dawn. The blankets were drawn back, and a thin cold-nosing thing drew itself up close to his chest: put its head into his shoulder, clutched at cloth. Kurogane stared up at the ceiling, watched the first red fingers of light feel their way through the shadows. His sore stiff heart was beating hammer-hard and sharp: still, somehow, after all this time. He shifted slowly onto his side and got his old unyielding arm around Fai’s shoulders, closed his eyes against Fai’s hair.
‘You know, when you call yourself useless, it kind of makes me feel bad, too,’ Fai said, slowly. ‘If you say mean things about yourself, you’re saying mean things about someone I like. I should probably beat you up for that.’
Kurogane breathed in deep. ‘You probably should,’ he agreed. ‘I’m sorry for being an ass. You’re right. I need you with me.’
Fai nodded in his arms. A bird sang somewhere in the garden, and the screen doors rattled a moment as someone scurried down the passageway outside: there followed a slight thud! and the sounds of an argument following a collision. Fai let out a little breath of laughter. ‘Looks like I get to be the responsible one this time,’ he remarked, as the quarrel outside grew louder.
‘Don’t get used to it,’ Kurogane muttered.
Fai nudged his cold feet up against Kurogane’s own. Someone outside called someone else a very inventively rude name, and he snickered, then burrowed his way closer into Kurogane’s arms. Kurogane closed his eyes. He had paid in bone for the body he held between himself and the red dawn, and it would never fail him: Fai was his left hand and his pale shadow, more steadfast than any stubborn heart. The blood could leave his body, he thought, and Fai would keep him upright simply by standing at his side. In that moment, he half-believed that he would never die.
Amaterasu, though retaining chief military authority, had decided after some discussion to cede on-the-ground control of the counterstrike to her cousin and heir, Tohru. Closer to forty than not, she was a tall woman and sharp-jawed, with eyes like two flints that sparked in the dark. She said goodbye to the dreamseer Saya and led a cohort of soldiers down into the riverlands west of the castle, where the grass was deep and red cattle strayed in the lily-thick ditches. Her troops were for the most part young, full of untried vigour and delighted heroism; the veterans had been deployed elsewhere along the borders to the south and the east, where there had been trouble from invading oni in recent years. With her as well, however, went Kurogane, largely to oversee his young trainees, and Kurogane’s fair-haired husband, the good-natured ghost he had brought back with him from outside the world. The troops pitched a sweaty, muttering camp under the eaves of a pine-forest at the edge of the disputed territory, and spent their first evening trying unsuccessfully to distract themselves from the unnatural heat that had hung over the land for upwards of a week.
The officers’ tent had been pitched with its back to the bole of a green-boughed pine as wide across as the armspan of man, and the enamelled brazier in the corner gave off a smell of frankincense that was sickly and sweltering in the warmth. ‘We’ve owned the disputed territory for more than a hundred years,’ Tohru was saying. ‘Families live there. The location close to the river makes it prime cattle-grazing land, and there’s a little port settlement that oversees the exchange of goods that come downstream via barge. This isn’t actually about some long-contested right they think they have to the land. It’s pure greed.’
‘It’s a petty landgrab,’ Kurogane summarised. ‘Let’s not pretend it’s anything different. We’ll just scare them off and send them packing. Everyone can go home early.’
‘Not a very noble cause,’ Umi observed: she was a young captain, frank and level-headed, vicious with a sword.
‘No such thing.’ Kurogane told her, flatly. ‘You’re fighting to protect your people. Don’t get fancy ideas about glory.’
The girl narrowed her eyes at him, opened her mouth as though about to retaliate: but before she could, Fai laughed strategically, and lightened the mood with a swift pat to Kurogane’s head. ‘Look at you, pretending to be a battle-hardened old soldier who’s seen it all.’
‘I am a battle-hardened old soldier who’s seen it all,’ Kurogane muttered, shrugging him off. ‘Quit embarrassing me in front of the kids.’
‘You talk big, watch dog, but you’re just a big old softie, aren’t you?’ Umi observed, grinning. ‘Alright, alright, I won’t trip over my own feet chasing heroism. I won’t let my troops do it, either.’
‘I’ll hold you to it,’ Kurogane said, and grinned back. Fai preened.
Tohru rapped her chopsticks against her scabbard. ‘Anyway, my point was that we aren’t going to be able to be able to participate in pitched battle, for the most part,’ she said. ‘They’ve sent in small occupying groups, mostly in this area, and have driven the inhabitants out towards the south. We need to flush out these groups. We’ll be ambushing them in small guerrilla attack squads, ideally with minimal damage done to the land – as little use of fire as possible, although we may have to resort to that if things get tough. From what we can tell, they have a general and several battalions who seem to have set up a semi-permanent camp here. They’re holding the port, and they’ve set up a perimeter on the river so that they can’t be attacked from behind. This is our long-term target.’
‘Why are they waiting there?’ Umi asked. ‘Do they intend to move in further, and use that camp as a base of operations?’
Tohru shrugged. ‘It’s probable,’ she said. ‘Mostly I think they just really want that port, and this valuable farmland to the east. For now their main force hasn’t moved in any further – it’s just these little raiding parties that have been overwhelming the farms. We’ll start with them.’
The trees had long since begun to turn, but the year had not turned with them. The heat stretched on and on, dry and unrelenting, and left the camp at risk for fire: at least three tents were lost to the sparks from a careless cookfire, although they contained only spare oilcloths and a few saddles. Three days after their arrival, Kurogane set out on reconnaissance with a sizeable lect of foot soldiers, a small cavalry unit, and Fai at his left hand, and was glad to be out of the close-packed little camp and on the move again. Even so, the journey was a nervous one. Red birds fled before them beneath the trees, their pinions splayed like fingers, and afterwards seemed to hang stamped on the black behind eyes. The smell of old earth got into the back of Kurogane’s throat and clung there like dust, bitter enough to beat poison: and some other thicker richer scent, like bile or hot green copper, that unsettled the sweat at the nape of his neck and set the horses stamping. The sky overhead rung tight as a drum, and when set against the ripe lines of the leaves seemed to take on a finstering gleam like oil on iron.
More than once he caught sight a spray of light out of the corner of his eye, and on turning saw that Fai was tapping distractedly at the butt of his yebira, scattering as he did so little crumbs of magic across the air. The third time it happened, Kurogane took his hand without ceremony and held it for a good hour, until he called a halt not far from the outlying paddies of the village they had been sent to investigate. The land fell away steeply from the edge of the forest into a flat pan of land where a little stream curved round in a white loop. From their position atop the bluff, they could see quite clearly that the village had been occupied: there was no sign of activity in the narrow streets, and the ripe yellow paddies seemed to have been abandoned halfway into the harvest. Two figures on horseback rode a slow patrol along the low wooden fence that marked the north-eastern boundary line.
A little path that had been cut into the soft clay of the escarpment provided the only passage downhill: and it was here, in the shadow of the maple forest, that Kurogane hunkered down behind a tumulus of granite and drew a map in the sand.
‘I want us to wait until nightfall, just to even our chances of getting across the paddies without being seen. I want us to attack the north-east corner first: to spread out as wide as we can without stretching ourselves too thin, then drive them towards the centre of the village. We should outnumber them, but they’ll have the advantage of familiar ground. A lot depends on us retaining the element of surprise.’
‘Ooh, I love the element of surprise,’ Fai said, confidentially, to an unimpressed soldier beside him.
But Kurogane shook his head. ‘Not you.’
‘But I’m so good at being surprising,’ Fai protested, poking at Kurogane’s diagrams with the point of an arrow. ‘Can’t I go in with the foot party? It sounds fun!’
‘Don’t care how it sounds,’ Kurogane said: then hooked the arrow up with a finger, tugged Fai over to his side. ‘I’d like it if we could take hostages,’ he said, quietly. ‘One or two of the officers, preferably someone with magic, preferably quick enough that by the time the fighting starts there’ll be no one around to give orders.’
Fai beamed. ‘Kidnapping, hmm?’ he said, and spun his arrow neatly between finger and thumb, so that the point flashed like a wheel of flame in the uncanny light. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
The sun set, but the heat lingered. A rugged cloudwall towards the west gleamed white where it defended a setting moon. The village lay for the most part dark under a piebald sky, save for the pair of pinpricks that marked the guards along the perimeter, and the rather lengthier row of lights away towards the centre of the little collection of houses, which Kurogane supposed must mark whatever structure had appropriated as a barracks. Fai had gone ahead an hour before, having cast some spell that rendered him less invisible than so deeply boring as to be unworthy of notice. Kurogane had glanced at him, found him unimportant, and turned away with a shrug: only when Fai dropped the spell, snickering, did Kurogane jerk back to stare at him in shock. He supposed it was an efficient solution to the problem of invisibility spells, which he had on one occasion heard Fai describe as ‘like a headache, except first you have to make the headache out of a jigsaw puzzle before you can have it’: but he had not liked to look at Fai as a stranger, and had not watched him go as he slipped away down the dark path and into the dusk.
Alone, he led his lect in silence down the shadowed slope, one hand holding fast to the hilt at his hip. His soldiers were not wholly inexperienced, and he trusted them, but there was something lacking from the act of battle, something lesser in the length of his sword. Every year the new faces seemed smaller and more misshapen, their shared language strange and their secret jokes stranger. Even the loose stones beneath his feet seemed insidiously unstable in the dark, as though the world had aged with him and were weaker now that it had been before. He shook the melancholy away and gripped tight to Ginryuu despite the flare of flame in his fingers, navigated his way carefully through the dark to the little muddy bank that ran alongside the nearest paddy.
He took out the first guard with relative ease: he had not lost his knack for stealth, even now, and the girl was out cold on the ground before she had had time to turn her head. ‘Don’t need fancy spells for sneaking around,’ he muttered, grinning, except that Fai was not there, and by the light of the moon he saw very clearly how the soldier behind him, a newly-promoted lieutenant, drew her brows together in confusion. For a moment he felt like an old man caught mumbling to himself. Then the second guard poked his head out from around the corner of a door, and Kurogane crumpled him with a swing of a fist. He felt better after that.
Things proceeded with an almost dreamlike ease. He moved through the streets with his soldiers at his side and struck down what stood in his way: he curled his fingers close around the hilt until the ache in his joints eased, paced his breath with vicious control, determined grimly that if that breathless vicelike pressure should come into his chest again he would undo it with sheer force of will. The heat was perhaps the worst of it, more pressing even than the dark: sweat gathered at the back of his neck as he flung himself forward to lock swords with an unusually tall enemy, dripped stinging into his eyes. Faceless and unimportant in the night, even his opponents seemed unreal. He felt almost astounded by the smallness of the streets, the distance even of the men whose ribs he broke with a blow. He had done this all before more times than he could count, and went through it now by slow and disheartened rote, as though he were a clockwork toy whose spring had begun at last to wind down.
Light had spread through the streets at their coming, and up ahead Kurogane could make out a long low building, likely a local magistrate’s offices, which he supposed was the makeshift barracks he had identified from the hilltop. Certainly a protective ring of soldiers had sprung up around it, and silhouetted against the doorway was a broad-shouldered man, blade raised against the light of torches. On either side soldiers joined battle in a strange, predestined fashion, drawn to opponents like iron filings to magnets: Kurogane supposed that there must have been some noise of shouting, some clatter of swords, but everything seemed oddly soundless. He flexed his sore fingers around his hilt to keep them from stiffening up: squared his shoulders and found himself facing off against the broad-shouldered man, an empty silhouette of an opponent that seemed to have been selected inevitably for him.
The shock of steel against steel, when it came, was stronger than he had expected. For the first time, something of interest stirred in him. He shifted his footing, still sweating in the heat of the night, and spun back, ducked, struck out. He had not lost his speed, nor his strategic savvy: he knew from something he could not name, some extra awareness of the flex and coil of enemy muscle, when to give ground and when to fight for it, when to leap back and when to press forward. His chest laboured to pull breath, and spots swum in his vision, but he kept his sword steady, supplemented the insecurity of his aching skin fingers with his steel hand. The man put unwise strength into a blow that Kurogane sidestepped easily, overcompensated by yanking himself back, and in that unguarded moment Kurogane struck the stranger’s sword earthwards with a smart tap, moved in and stabbed him straight through the ribs. The man staggered to his knees, sword fallen: then slumped.
Kurogane turned away and strode toward the door of the barracks, shouldered it open after two attempts: then was yanked back unceremoniously by a set of strong arms folded about his throat. He struggled, craning round to get a glimpse of his attacker, knowing it for the broad-shouldered man: caught the shadow of an old scar over one eye and recognised him, suddenly, from a world where he had been a god: then stilled as he felt the white chill of a knife settle against his pulse.
‘I don’t want to kill you,’ said a slow, heavy voice.
‘Hate to tell you this, but you may be in the wrong job,’ Kurogane bit back.
‘I don’t want to kill you for a rice paddy and a handful of old goats,’ the man said. The blade was shaking in his hand. ‘I don’t want people to die over something this small –’
Goosebumps swept across Kurogane’s skin so sharply that he shuddered. The next second, his vision flared white as a concussive ribbon of glyphs crashed into the man behind him and sent him flying clean through the doorway, blasting stone into rubble and taking off a good chunk of the roof.
‘I can’t leave you alone for a moment,’ Fai sighed, picking his way delicately over a fallen body and taking up his position at Kurogane’s back. ‘Honestly.’
‘Not my fault you took so long to get here,’ Kurogane muttered, levelling his sword against an ill-prepared attacker and sending him stumbling back.
‘I stopped along the way to admire the scenery.’
‘Oh, you mean the two fine gentlemen I just finished sneaking out of the village and back into the camp?’ A light flared in the dark, and there came a crackle as Fai wrote a rune onto the air and discharged it out into the night. ‘Safe and sound.’
‘Guess you are useful, sometimes.’
That sense of distance had dissipated: the back against his was closer to him than his own skin. Standing in the doorway of the broken barracks they dug in their heels and stood against anyone who tried to escape. They must have fought half an hour longer at least, sweating thickly under the heavy dark, but it seemed to speed by in a battering blur. Each blow struck Kurogane strong to the bone, shook him back off his balance: and it was not as easy as it had one been to bear up, beat back, battle on. The necessary burden of his steel arm did more harm than good, pulling painfully at his chest, which was tight enough to begin with: the ache in his fingers drummed as dull a red as his lungs. Still he kept his hand closed tight around the hilt of his sword: still he pulled in breath after breath and blinked the sweat from his eyes. The warmth of those shoulders against his own eased the ache of old metal. The pull and press of muscle against muscle steadied his breath. With Fai at his back, he felt taller than the sky.
‘They’ve turned for the hills,’ someone was saying, very suddenly, and Kurogane’s vision cleared, focused on a streak of bright torchlight in the restless dark: made out the narrow face beyond it of a new recruit he did not recognise. ‘Those as survived took what horses we hadn’t secured and fled.’
‘Well, then, I think we’re done here,’ Fai remarked, and Kurogane looked down to find that the ground had sprouted bodies, soft and sodden as a crop of overnight mushrooms. ‘Looks like the place is ours, wouldn’t you say?’
Kurogane staggered, just once: felt Fai’s arm slip surreptitiously to the small of his back: righted himself, drew his shoulders straight. Seven or eight other soldiers stood by, and by the glare of the torchlight moving a street over and the flicker of voices that followed, the rest of the troops were on their way. He could not breathe without considerable pain, and his heart felt like a rusty old snarl of clockwork, aching to scrape and stiff. He drew himself up all the same: measured his breathing against the count of ten, bit back the thickness of blood in his throat, until he was worthy to stand at Fai’s side.
‘Not bad, I guess,’ he managed, and his voice did not shake.
Fai turned to him to grin –
From inside the barracks, there came a short, soft sound.
Even five years previously, Kurogane would have been quick enough. At sixty, he was a second too late. Something vast came surging out of the shivered stones, scattering scoria as it struck, and hurled itself at Fai: who pivoted, swift enough to shove Kurogane aside before staggering under the weight of those vast searching arms. That old broad-shouldered god had survived even under all that stone. His knife flashed in the dark. Kurogane roared and flung himself forward, ripped the blade away and drove it straight into the man’s blind eye. There came a terrific scream, and the man lashed out with his heavy clublike hands: slammed Fai backwards into the crumbling wall of the barracks. The doorway collapsed on top of him in a resigned huff of rubble. Kurogane yanked the knife from out its bony hilt and drove it home into the man’s throat, drew it down in a murderous curve until blood hit him hot in the face. Only then did he shake the meat from his blade and stagger to Fai’s side.
He was already hauling himself out of the rubble, breath rough. A girl and two boys were beside him, scraping the stone away: Kurogane shoved them unthinking aside as he stooped to lever lintel from leg, forgot in its entirety the pain in his chest as strength shook through him.
‘My hand –’ Fai got out: and in the light of a leaning torch, Kurogane saw that his fingers had been smashed by a stone the size of his head.
‘Shit,’ he hissed: heaved the brick back as far as he could, lip curled and heart flinching.
Fai pressed his lips together until they showed bloodless, and with an awful gasp wrenched his hand loose. A brief spatter of blood followed it. ‘It’s fine, I’m fine, I just – lost a few nails I think –’ he said, but his breath was hitching and half-hysterical, his teeth bared bright and feral.
They knelt together in the broken doorway, cramped and uncomfortable. The night all around was flooded with firelight as anxious onlookers crowded in, but behind them the empty house echoed black and boundless, mortar gleaming gold. Fai shied away in a stuttering shudder, every action pained and piecemeal. Kurogane reached out with uncertain arms to cup Fai close, as though he could cradle him complete. The crushed hand lay crumpled between them.
‘Let me help,’ Kurogane said, fingers hovering uselessly. The torchlight shook worse than he did. ‘There’s nothing to see here!’ he shouted, suddenly, waving the soldiers away. ‘I don’t need light! Just go! Get out!’
Fai stared at him, eyes wide and unwavering, broken forehead already abruise. His face grew faint and fainter as one by one uncertain soldiers stepped away, no footsteps even to follow them as they trod on bodies. Afterimages seamed the night a while, then thinned and unthreaded. Kurogane held Fai’s hand in the dark and did not move.
‘I need to see if anything’s broken,’ he said at last. ‘I can’t promise it won’t hurt, alright? You’ll just have to tough it out.’
‘Believe it or not,’ Fai said, with gentleness, ‘I have had worse.’
Kurogane’s heart flooded. ‘Don’t go trying to be brave, you bastard,’ he snapped, and it was a hundred times more painful than old age to hear that little puff of laughter. ‘It doesn’t suit you.’ He took one finger carefully between his own and pressed it. ‘Does it hurt when I do this?’
It was easy, in the warm dark, to brush each bone: easy to read the push and go of Fai’s breath, to pause for pain and rate the rush of pulse. He pressed his thumb into the crook of each joint and cupped each corner of the palm. He had been taught the construction of the hand, long ago, had studied a yellowing old spray of bones wired into stiffness in some schoolroom, and now he counted his way down the parts of the palm until he was certain he had covered them all. It was a bitter facsimile of sex, this cautious catalogue of cracks, but one carried out with no less love.
‘This, here?’ he checked, when he felt Fai flinch: sought out the source and felt the edges give and grind, was certain for a moment that he could see the break blazing red with pain. ‘Right. I think you might’ve fractured it, this small bone on the side, but that’s the worst of it. Everything else seems fine: no fingers broken.’
Fai drew in a long breath, curiously content, and dropped his head to Kurogane’s shoulder. He stank atrociously of sweat in the heat, and his hair was crusted with blood. Kurogane’s chest ached in adoration. This battered tryst in the black was as much their marriage as any embrace: even here amid the broken stones they fit into each other, all edges aligned. ‘Well, you know me,’ Fai said, and smiled against Kurogane’s skin. ‘They say I’m very lucky.’
In the morning they sat backed up against a black rock and bettered each other’s hurts through quiet conversation. In the light of the rising sun their skin shone red as bronze. In all that brightness, the blood on Fai’s fingers could barely be seen, and the littler scars beneath it would have been visible only to Kurogane, who had catalogued each of them in turn as though it was a star. Fai had lost two fingernails, and a third had peeled itself loose from his thumb, revealing beneath it the soft wet skin as bald as a slug. Still the scarring would not be so complete as the mutilation that spanned the insides of his wrists to his fingertips, which were stiff with shining tissue: had been so for centuries, would endure so for several more.
Kurogane’s own heavy hands cupped them close, caught their blood before it could fall. Steel settled soft on skin and sought to undo damage that anywhere else it would have dealt. The circle of the world narrowed to the compass of their curved backs and close-folded arms, the linking of limb to limb. Kurogane straightened a long white strip of cloth out from a knot about Fai’s wrist, watched thin threads of red spread to stain before he could begin to wind it tight. He passed it down and around the breadth of the broken palm, brought it back about, a slow-spinning spoke of thin linen. In the sunrise it seemed suddenly like the break about which they balanced: not a bandage but a bright edge between them, some crack in the clay.
A fortnight of the unnatural heat saw the deep autumn grasses crisped to the colour of old paper: by the time three weeks had passed, the sky itself was beginning to look browned about the edges, as though every night when the sun went down it ate away a little bit more of the air. The smell of smoke clung acrid to the back of every breeze, and worked its way further into the dust that the horses kicked up in clouds, so that it clung to one’s clothes and sunk stubbornly into skin. The host went badly short on water, for they were kept from the river proper by a ring of enemy reinforcements, and most of the smaller seasonal tributaries were by now muddy ditches, so that they were forced to ration what reserves they had. The effort to reclaim the captured territory was slow, in no small part because of their orders to do as little damage to property as possible, but also because the risk of fire was so great – however effective bringing flame against a single village might have been, they could not take the risk that fire might catch, not with the countryside so dry and water so scarce. It was an awkward campaign, and one that set a muttering discomfort spreading among the soldiers quicker than any fire: and with that discomfort, a slew of new rumours about the abilities of their enemy.
‘I don’t think anyone we’ve got hold have actually knows anything,’ Tohru said in exasperation, having compared details extracted from several hostages with the reports from scouts and found little of use. ‘I don’t even have conclusive information on this supposed weather mage’s gender, let alone their abilities. If it weren’t for the fact that Kotori has never been wrong yet, I’d think the whole thing was some kind of elaborate ruse.’
‘They’re very good at hiding themselves, whoever they are,’ Fai remarked. He was engaged in spinning a little stick of incense between finger and thumb, but his eyes were fixed distant on the small space of shadow beyond the tent flaps. ‘Usually magic leaves a – trace, sort of, a colour, that I should be able to follow. Perhaps if we get closer I’ll be able to catch a glimpse of them.’
‘If they have a mage that powerful then this is no longer about reclaiming territory,’ Tohru told him. ‘If we don’t take whoever this is out, then all this starts again next year. We might need you to do some hunting.’
Kurogane cared less for the cause of battle and more for the creeping sense of containment that came over him in sleepless hours. He had never before questioned the worth of his service: but it had been some years since he had been on the wartrail, and he could not remember the faces beside him having been so open and so unlined, the battles so long for so little ground gained. It was all the stranger because he very clearly knew that he had enjoyed this sort of thing as a young man. He was not given to pessimism, and so he did his best not to dwell: he reminded himself that he did not do this for glory or for sport, that he had a princess waiting for him to come home, that he had a household to defend and a name to honour. He supposed that it was enough. Still he remembered the days of being certain that he was doing something great and memorable and noble. Now he just wanted Tomoyo to be safe. He thought of her often, of the way her lips curled up wryly at the corners when he said something rude, of how her eyes creased up whenever her nephews started throwing things at each other. She was his oldest friend still living, he had realised one grey aching evening, half-asleep with his head in Fai’s lap: the first face he had seen out of the blazing dark, the first touch that had calmed his fury. Grand declarations of loyalty meant nothing if he would begrudge her more menial acts of devotion: he would fight even the little bitter battles for her sake, would put aside thoughts of glory and remember only his love for her.
He led his small parties of outriders on patrol, he flushed out occupied villages, he fought one memorable encounter in the shallow fords of the river itself, feet slipping on the flat stones and Fai beside him covered in mud and laughing wide-mouthed and wild. He rode patrol without complaint, argued only occasionally with Tohru, even offered his troops a grin from time to time. As the days went by, he even found himself willing to clap one or two of his favourites on the shoulder, or give them an encouraging knock to the head. He supposed that he could do worse. His hand hurt, and his heart shuddered sometimes, but he had remembered his strength far better than he had feared. A lifetime’s worth of training had not failed him, and if his bones ached or his breath caught, Fai was there to compensate. Fai was quicker than lightning, better to have beside him than a hundred men: and understood far more than Kurogane said, knew when to prod him into grumbling and when to leave him be, when to chatter happily and when to come to him in silence. To others he suspected their marriage might seem strange, but they had after three decades developed as much of an instinct for each other as for war: they understood each other’s moods and movements, read intent in the shift of a shoulder or the quirk of a mouth, had learned through long study each appropriate response. It was in some ways simpler than willing a hand to move, and in others more complex than calligraphy.
They slept easily enough on the ground while out on patrol, wrapped in their cloaks with their shoulders shoved together as they leaned up against a tree or a quitchwall, and as officers they had rights to a shared tent while with the main encampment: but even when with the rest of the army, any time not given to sleep was spent outside, partially in the hopes of the open air proving cooler than their stuffy tent, but also because the crackle of the cookfires all around was something of a comfort. Fai in particular enjoyed chatting to the younger recruits, and would often stray from the officers’ areas to find the nearest firelit circle of young soldiers, dragging Kurogane behind him with some vague rationalisation about how getting to know one’s soldiers was good for morale. The bulk of them knew Fai by sight, and liked him where they feared Kurogane: and so they did not seem to mind his wheedling the harp out of someone’s hands and starting up a filthy folksong, or telling wild lies about an adventure in a far-away world involving horse-sized pink wombats, or simply asking everyone how their day had been. Kurogane sat by and watched without comment or complaint. Fai craved company in a way he did not: Fai needed touch and grounding talk, good conversation and bad jokes, just in case the world moved on without him and left him staring up at a great height in the cold.
By way of balance, however, and for Kurogane’s benefit, there were evenings they spent alone, a little way removed from the campfires that studded the still hot night like stars. Kurogane liked to service his arm once every week or so, opening the little inspection hatch in the forearm to be certain that the wires had not fallen out of place, oiling the joints with a bottle of lamp oil that served well enough to keep the gears limber: and as he worked, Fai liked to curl up on the ground and lean against Kurogane’s legs, cheek to knee, and speak idly about whatever came to mind until Kurogane had done.
‘…meanwhile the poor prince was crying an awful lot, and kept saying, “Oh, how I wish my brave princess would come and rescue me!” so the old nurse said, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you a story to pass the time until the bandits come back!”’ Fai concluded, and gave a little yawn as he glanced up at Kurogane. ‘What story should the old nurse tell the prince, hmm? You get to choose!’
Kurogane considered it. ‘What was the one about the warrior who could talk to birds after he killed the dragon?’ he asked, knocking his knuckles gently against the side of Fai’s cheek.
‘The one where the birds told him about the best place to buy discount melons? And he made a lovely fruit salad and shared it with the robins?’
Another knock, reproving. ‘You made that up.’
Fai swatted at his hand. ‘All stories are made-up, silly,’
‘You know what I mean.’ Kurogane settled his hand on Fai’s hair, began to card through it, rubbed dried blood from behind his ear with a bizarrely tender sort of domestic pride. ‘If you’re going to make stuff up, tell me about what the dragon did before she was killed.’
‘The dragon was a she?’
‘Yes,’ Kurogane said, stolidly. After a moment, he added, ‘She lived in a river and she was friends with a frog. One day she found a baby splashing around her river, but she didn’t know whose it was. So she and the frog friend had to go on a quest to find its parents.’
In the mornings they rose early: even Fai, who usually slept late and had to be cajoled out from under the covers, could not sleep long in the heat, but was up restless and sweating and scrubbing himself fretfully with palmfuls of mint and dried hyssop, muttering about the lack of bathing water and frowsing fingers through his sticky hair. The dawn filled their tent bloody, so that they moved about like charcoal-struck figures on a red painted backdrop, blades glinting white between them. Fai eased Kurogane into his armour and felt its fit, checked his helmet, bound Ginryuu into place with his own steady hands: and Kurogane completed the contract by drawing close to buckle Fai’s gambeson and strapping his armguard down tight, resting their foreheads together. This, too, was a balancing act, a ritual exchange by which each secured the other’s safety: a mutual sacrifice of care and time to ensure survival, a wordless inventory of the bodies they loved.
Sometimes when Fai parried the edge of a sword Kurogane felt the blow reverberate in his own bones: sometimes when Fai pulled power down out of the air Kurogane’s fingers twitched to trace the shape of a glyph he did not know. Once or twice he could have sworn that he willed his own arm to move and felt Fai strike out in response. It would have been easy, especially considering what they knew of the nature of souls, to think themselves born to this: to think that they had come ready-shaped for each other into their respective worlds, locked from the first into place like joint and bone. This was not the way of it, and although it would have made for a pleasant fiction, it discounted and dishonoured the long hard work of learning each other, the flesh they had surrendered and the blood they had sold for peace. They fought side-by-side with such seamless ease not because they were by any trick of fate designed to be single-minded, but because they had spent years devoted to their study each of the other, rebuilding habit and negotiating convenience, until there was no more need for uncertainty.
In conversation, too, they found comfort, and years of crafted intimacy. They had always had more in common than most people assumed, and if left alone would speak for hours at a stretch about everything from the balance of a good blade to epic poetry: and yet even after thirty years they were still eagerly engaged in the long process of learning.
‘One time,’ Kurogane murmured, as they yawned against each other in the firelight, ‘one time, I got backed into the foot of one of the bastions and couldn’t get out – a party of theirs sortied at the wrong time, so their archers had to break off their fire, and I led an infantry unit right up to the walls. It was an old fort, lot of wooden repairs, and luckily someone had pitch and torches on them, so we managed to fire the battlements. Otherwise we would have been pinned down completely.’
Fai stirred: he had been half-asleep against Kurogane’s shoulder, but now he stretched and yawned, shook himself. ‘You know, it’s a major design flaw, those square bastions of yours – if you just used triangular ones, you wouldn’t leave any room to hide from the crossfire. Look –’ He slid off the toppled trunk they had been using as a makeshift seat and crouched down on the ground, snapped a stick from a nearby branch: began to sketch some starlike shape into the mud with sudden industry.
Kurogane squinted down at it, tilting his head at it in the firelight until it came clear. It was a five-sided fortification, with triangular bastions that he supposed were elegant, although he could not see their purpose. ‘Why’s it all pointy?’ he demanded.
‘All medieval lowland forts used this design, before suspended architecture was developed and the era of the sky palaces began. Allows you to defend all sides of your fort with ranged weapons. It’s the next best thing to fortifying raised ground. We had huge flat snowbound areas of land in between impossibly steep mountains – we couldn’t all build beautiful fancy castles on hilltops, like you do.’ Here Fai sketched in a series of arrows to stand for attacks. ‘It also affords ranged magic users a clear line of sight down each of the flanks, see?’
Kurogane was playing a scenario out in his head. ‘Magic users have a shorter range than archers, don’t they?’ he realised out loud. ‘And – yeah, I guess a broader range as well. Need more room to fire.’
Fai grinned. ‘Exactly! If an archer misses their target, nothing much goes wrong – they waste an arrow, nothing more. If a magic user doesn’t have a clear shot, they risk blowing up their own fortifications.’
Kurogane nodded thoughtfully. ‘I never thought about that. Most of our battle magic is defensive: kekkai, that kind of thing. Did you use mages in battle formations?’
‘Yes – look, let me show you – this is a very famous method of deployment pioneered by Shashi, a warlord from about four hundred years before I was born. She was rich enough to hire enormous amounts of mercenary mages, and she experimented with all sorts of deployments before working out how to use them most effectively. Her real triumph was the introduction of small quick parties of healer-mages –’
Some evenings they were so very tired that they could do little more than murmur to each other. The cookfires grew too warm, and the noise of the camp all around too pressing, and so they retired early to their tent, where they doused the lantern and lay down together on pallets they had pressed up close. They had with them a double-sized quilt that Kurogane had carried with him from home, rolled up in the bottom of his pannier, which they had shared for the last seventeen years, and although it was much too hot to use it, they both of them liked to sleep on top of it, as a reminder of home. Kurogane lay on his side, good arm tracing the raised embroidery of flying fish in the dark, while Fai buried his face in the soft quilted pattern of waves and curled up in the lee of Kurogane’s body as though taking shelter from a high wind: not touching, comfortable inches apart, each talking in tones only the other recognised of worlds only they knew.
‘That was a good shot Haruka-kun made back there.’
‘Reminds me of – that time, with that girl, you remember?’
‘The look on her face.’
‘Dumb luck, that was. She always was a crap archer.’
‘Do you remember how –?’
‘With the longbow, yeah. Wonder what happened to her.’
‘I hope she married that nice boy – what was his name –?’
‘The one with the hair.’ Kurogane thought about it. ‘Their kids would have the weirdest noses.’
‘Don’t be rude about hypothetical babies,’ Fai reprimanded him.
‘What? They would.’ Kurogane plucked at the silken scale of a fish, then muttered, ‘Hope they teach them how to use a damn bow.’
At almost exactly the same time, Fai said, ‘Well, let’s hope they’re better with a bow.’
There was silence for a moment, and then they both snorted into a fit of snickering. Fai yawned through his laughter and snuggled closer, curled up into himself, gave the little sigh that Kurogane knew signalled sleep. Shadows moved soft on the red firelit walls of the tent as soldiers went to and fro: a little brackish wind moved the brush outside. Kurogane watched a single stripe of light come and go in Fai’s hair with the rise and fall of his breath, counted the worlds they carried between them, the lives they had known and let go. He could not remember what it was, anymore, to be anything but content: even here at the heart of war he knew peace, where once he would have spent his nights caught up in a blazing fury. He knew that in his youth he had been terribly angry: could remember looking down at his hands to see them shake with rage, knew that he had had good reason: but it was the feeling itself he could not catch back, ash of an ancient flame he could not rekindle. These days it was grief that struck him off his feet at unexpected moments, quick as a blizzard, and against that there could be no kindly softening of the thought, only a strengthening of the spirit. He had never once forgotten his mother’s face in the light when his father had handed her that scarf. The smallest things were the cruellest.
‘Do you remember when I used to be – angry?’ he asked, suddenly, half-hoping that Fai had fallen asleep.
But, ‘You’re always angry,’ Fai answered fondly through a yawn: rubbed a hand over his eye, mumbled, ‘Grumpy puppy.’
‘No, I mean – that rage I used to have, that – resentment at the whole world.’ Kurogane looked at Fai in the red light, at the shadows of his sleep-softened face indistinct and intimate, and felt that same cold grief welling in his heart, that pre-emptive anguish for everything he had yet to lose. He made a little dismissive sound in the back of his throat, shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter. Just feels like forever ago, ’s all.’
But Fai’s eyes flicked over to his, dark and very steady. Kurogane looked away. ‘I used to be terribly sad,’ Fai said, after a long moment. He lay very still as he spoke: his long white fingers, which usually fluttered to the beat of his speech, were curled up tight against his chest. ‘Everything was so awful, always, all the time. But these days – for a long time, now, actually – I can remember why I wanted to die, but I can’t remember what it – what it felt like?’ Kurogane nodded, and Fai nodded too, and they shared wry smiles of recognition and relief. ‘I think that’s good,’ Fai confessed, shrugging. ‘I don’t know. But I think it’s good.’
It did not surprise Kurogane that Fai had all but taken the thoughts out of his head, not anymore. Over the years their clay had been broken many times and the pieces mingled, so that when they were remade it was with composite hearts that ached alike and spoke in synchrony. ‘You’re still sad sometimes,’ he said instead, thinking of winter, of the way Fai’s shoulders grew stick-like and shivered in the snow-clad turning of every year, of the dead-eyed fatalism that kept him bed-bound: that grey weight that was heavier than any stone, heavier than even Kurogane’s strength could lift.
‘That’s just how I am,’ Fai told him: added, with honesty, ‘Things are so much better now.’
Long after Fai had fallen asleep, Kurogane lay awake, half undone by love. There was no one else who could pull the words from his mouth before he had so much as spoken them, no one else who would meet his gaze grinning over a shared secret. The fragility of it struck him unbearably. So much blood and so many lives had paid for it, for this little thing that they had built: worlds had been undone so that they could lie here in the dark and gossip about half-forgotten friends. His chest ached at the smallness of it, and the resilience. He watched Fai shift and settle in his sleep, no longer hollow-cheeked and flinching from nightmares, and wanted to shout, or curse, or break something very expensive. He could not leave this behind.
He woke later that night with what he thought at first was a bad tooth, but which proved simply to be a headache: a long throbbing pain up the side of his jaw and into the back of his skull that disordered his thoughts and left him too dizzy to slip back into sleep. He became possessed of the vague idea that fresh air might clear his head, and so, careful not to wake Fai, he left the tent, staggered out into the darkness feeling oddly unreal. The heat rose up like a wall, and he rubbed at his eyes, pushing away the fine sweat that had sprung up on his brow. Something somewhere was terribly wrong, but he could not feel frightened about it: he could only examine the idea of fear vaguely, inefficiently, as though from a great height.
Overhead was a full moon, fisheye-bright, and all about it vast constructs of grey cloud that unfolded themselves like bridges across the stars. He remembered that shining city in the sky, ringed all round with shifting light, and the violence of the winds that had guarded it: wondered, not for the first time, if Fai ever missed his home in the air, if he looked out of the window some mornings and was surprised to see the ground so close by. He had never even thought to ask if they buried bodies, all the way up there in the skies, or if they simply burned them with sacred magic. He struggled to remember whether Fai had ever spoken about funerals: had to put his hand up to his brow for a moment, rub his forehead to clear the strange fug of grey that had come over his thought. His thoughts were swinging back and forth like a pendulum, and although he felt no pain, he had the oddest sensation that his heart had grown too big for its own skin, and was about to split down the seams like a melon. Without warning, he threw up.
He staggered back towards the tent, his chest straining against his ribs, and found that he could not even breathe deep enough to speak. ‘Hey,’ he tried, clutching at the tent flaps. ‘Hey, I – I think something’s wrong –’
Fai sat up. Kurogane fell over. He did not remember very much after that.
Tohru had a unique understanding of the notion of taking sick leave, which was why instead of excusing Kurogane from her counsels, she moved their meetings to his tent: had a map glued to bit of old board and propped it up against a saddle alongside his pallet, handed him a riding crop in lieu of a pointer, and informed him that she expected him to contribute to the session. Chest bruised and aching from the desperate attentions of doctors, one hand still slightly numb, his head was shadowlessly clear: he half expected to reach out and feel the edges of reality fold crisp under his fingers as clean cloth. The grey heat that had heavied him down with sweat and grime and ugliness for so many weeks had been cleansed somehow. He felt fragile but sharp.
‘You need to draw them out,’ he concluded, after an hour’s worth of plotting scouted information around the river. ‘This isn’t about reclaiming territory anymore: we’ve pushed them as far back towards the river as they’re going to go. This is about making a show of force. Do some heavy damage to their troops – not enough that they’ll be forced to swear revenge, but enough to demoralise them very seriously. We need to show them that moving against us was a mistake.’
‘I’m inclined to agree with him, actually,’ said Umi. She had come close to losing an eye some days ago, and had an ugly bandage crusted over her forehead, but she grinned as she spoke. ‘Now is the time for head-bashing if there ever was one.’
‘There is also the matter of the weather mage –’ Tohru began, and then paused, looked expectantly at Kurogane.
He understood what she was asking. ‘Look, just send the idiot in after them,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to be close enough that he can track them by now. He’ll take them out easily.’
She nodded. Her dark sunworn face was thinner than it had been when she had out on the war trail, but that wicked fire in her eyes flashed sharp as ever, and when she smiled at Kurogane now there was something of fondness in it. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I was under the impression that you two never went into battle without each other, but he said something remarkably similar to your suggestion this morning.’
‘’Course he did,’ Kurogane muttered, shifting irritably under the weight of what he strongly suspected to be admiration. ‘He’s here to do his job, not baby me.’ He clenched the fingers of his right hand and found that they were giving him pain again, which was a small victory over the numbness: looked up hopefully, said, ‘You don’t need me to do anything, do you?’
She let out a loud snort and rolled her eyes. ‘I need you to stay in bed for the next three days and take your damn medicine,’ she told him. ‘My aunt’s very attached to you for some reason. I’d never hear the end of it if you died on my campaign.’
‘Your aunt has been a pain in my ass since she was eight years old, and you can tell her I said that,’ Kurogane snapped. ‘She doesn’t get to tell me when to die. I’ll do that in my own sweet time.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ Tohru said, and clapped him on the shoulder so hard that he winced. ‘So, what do you think: move the eighteenth south-west? There’s good cover behind this hill.’
Left alone, he eased himself back gingerly onto sweat-stiffened sheets and lay staring dry-eyed and restless up into the folds of the tent. Back in the spring, after his first two attacks, he had gone about feeling as though gravity had tripled, as though it would cost him half a day’s worth of energy simply to walk ten paces. Now, after his heart had tried for the third time to fall silent, he felt curiously detached. He held a windstorm in his heart, and it had battered at the confines of his flesh until his bones were thinned-out and brittle, a house for air and fire. The walls of the tent were beginning to spin, and he closed his eyes with a noise of defeat, feeling as though he might collapse and dissipate at any moment, as though he were being pulled closer and closer through the black to a bright edge from which there was no return. He spilled out into a red sleep in which his mother spoke his name and pushed his hair back from his face, rinsed the bruises from his heart with a palmful of clear water.
He woke still seeing her face, and for a moment in the hot twilight thought that he could feel her hands drawing a cool cloth down his clammy cheeks. Her presence seemed so viscerally true that he started upright, croaked out, ‘Mother?’ before he could stop himself. There was a smooth potent scent on the air, camphor and sandalwood, something he had not smelled since he was a child fetching a scarf from an old wooden kist and bringing it to long gentle hands.
‘It’s me,’ said a voice, and his heart stuttered, and it was Fai: Fai’s white hands on his shoulders, Fai’s fingers pushing back his hair, Fai’s palms pressing water from cloth and cleaning away sweat. Kurogane lay back in his arms, heart trembling like a leaf, and had to fight down tears for the first time in memory. He was very tired.
‘I think you should know that I’ve done something extremely clever,’ Fai said, softly, as he folded up the cloth and set it aside.
Kurogane kept his face pressed close into Fai’s chest, did not open his eyes. ‘That would be a first,’ he managed.
Fai raised a knuckle, rapped very gently at Kurogane’s temple by way of reprimand. ‘Such a rude puppy,’ he sighed. ‘Actually, I think I’ve finally figured out how to track their weather mage. It was very difficult and I spent ages working out how and you’d better tell me I’m smart.’
‘Alright, alright, you’re smart.’
‘And handsome?’ Fai pressed, with a certain sweetness.
Kurogane snorted. ‘Don’t push it,’ he muttered, and felt Fai laugh. ‘So, what, you gonna go after them?’
‘I’m leading a party out tomorrow,’ Fai said, and set about running a thumb down the line of temple to chin, slow and over: touching the edge of an eyebrow, fitting fingertip to philtrum, knuckles to lips. ‘I don’t know about you,’ he added, confidentially, ‘but this campaign is getting a bit boring. I want to go home.’
‘Yeah,’ Kurogane said: mustered up the most of his strength, gave a grin. ‘Yeah. Me too.’
Even at the onset of evening, no wind blew. The dead draining heat of day simmered pale as the air dimmed and deepened, but the air remained perfectly still, as though it were afraid to break itself. Kurogane shifted a little, stretched out over the sheets, but kept his face buried in Fai’s lap, his fingers clutched tight in the cloth of Fai’s coat. He was shaky with sleep, still thinned-out and threadbare, and his heart listed sickly with shock when he recalled that strange sweet scent, that certainty. He wondered, suddenly, what his mother would have thought of Fai: knew in the same moment that she would have loved him utterly, in the way she had loved all kind and orphaned things. He clenched his fingers tighter.
‘I can’t fight this,’ he said, after a long while. ‘It doesn’t matter how strong I am. I can’t win.’
Fai did not stop stroking his hair. ‘Don’t be so melodramatic,’ he chided him. ‘You’re not dying, silly puppy.’
‘We can get you medicine,’ Fai insisted, voice blithe and suspiciously unburdened. ‘I’ll talk to Tomoyo-chan. I’m sure they have medicine for this in her world. Or we could ask Watanuki-kun! I can’t imagine the price would be too high. We’ll figure something out!’
‘I am dying,’ Kurogane very nearly snapped, because he knew that voice, that skilled silly lilt, even though he had not heard it in years. ‘Maybe not from this, but – eventually. We can’t just keep pretending you’re not going to outlive me.’
Fai’s fingers fell still in his hair. ‘I’m not afraid,’ he said at last, frankly, all pretence fallen. ‘Are you?’
In the darkness every word they spoke seemed to stamp itself bright into being: as though they were picking apart unfathomable fears as cold as old poetry and rearranging them letter by letter in the hopes of being better understood. Kurogane could barely read himself in that moment: the sipping horror of that bright edge loomed so large that he could not pull it apart into thought, let alone build it in language. Still he scattered a handful of sounds out into the black, hoped that Fai could catch them. ‘I’m afraid of leaving Tomoyo,’ he tried. ‘I’m afraid of leaving you.’
‘You know I’ll keep her safe. I’ll serve her for as long as she needs me. I love her.’ Here Fai’s breath caught, and had Kurogane not known him better, he would have thought that he was on the brink of tears: but when he spoke again, his voice was strong and steady. ‘And I’ll be alright. I can take care of myself now.’
An old song came back to him just then: a song and a smile, both sweet, one sickening. He remembered rubble under a puddle of lamplight, his utter disgust, that blunt frustrating front of a grin. He remembered the thin-lipped man who had held out his hands to oblivion and seen suicide as his only hope of atonement, who had been bound to life only by his brother’s death and called himself catastrophe. He had not known him in decades. The man who held him now had nurtured his own hurts enough to know their worth: had come through grey days and snowbound seasons despite the struggle, loved himself for his own sake as much as for the sake of others. He had given flesh to help it happen, but he had not done the bitter iterative work of distilling self-hatred into peace.
‘I guess we should see the kids again,’ Kurogane said, finally. ‘I’m not planning on quitting on you any time soon, got it? But we should visit. It’s been more than a year.’
Fai started stroking his hair again, with palms that were more scar than skin, with hands that had broken worlds. It was such a small and simple end to all their grand adventurings, to live quietly in the service of their princess, to spend their evenings bickering over court gossip, to settle petty border disputes like guards for hire: but perhaps the smallest things were not the cruellest after all, but rather the most rare. ‘I’d like that,’ Fai admitted, with a wistfulness that cut at Kurogane’s heart, and then gave a sudden, genuine chuckle. ‘Just think! You can finally have your rematch with Touya!’
Kurogane bristled. ‘That was one time,’ he said. ‘Smug bastard beat me one time. You were watching. You know I tripped.’
‘Do I?’ Fai asked, and tapped Kurogane on the nose. ‘It’s not very gracious to blame your defeat on bad balance.’
‘Someone’s got to keep you honest,’ Fai observed archly, and then yawned, returned to stroking Kurogane’s hair. ‘I think you should try to get some sleep. I’ll be heading out early, but you need your rest.’
Kurogane nodded. He had not moved his face from Fai’s lap, and never wanted to: never wanted to uncurl his fingers, to turn away and lie alone in the dark. Still an enormity too large to parse seemed lodged in his throat. It was not fear, not anymore. ‘Hey,’ he said, almost without meaning to. He coughed. Fai made an inquiring noise. Kurogane swallowed. The words stumbled out numbly. ‘You know you’re my best friend, right?’
Fai made a very soft sound, less a laugh than a little puff of air. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Go to sleep.’
He was aware of a shadow moving in the white dawn: less than a shadow: he had not opened his eyes past blurring, but he could follow the progression of sounds around the tent well enough to construct a remembered mechanism, knew by rote the morning ritual of washcloth and razor, the heft of heavy leather and the cold bronze buckles. Watching his husband work without him woke muscle memories in him: like accounting for the weight of an arm long after it was gone and being caught off-kilter, he could still feel his own fingers brushing over a breastplate and securing straps, drawing a cloak closed and adjusting the sit of a quiver not his own across a heart he loved. He reached out to complete the contract, to balance out the routine that he had performed for the better half of his life: but sleep held his hands motionless, and his poor sore tired body could not seem to bring itself to stand, and he sank bank into sleep. In days still to come he would recall a touch to his mouth, as though lips had rested there just a second before, and the tent flaps swinging closed in the still hot air, the edge of a shadow slipping away: but there was no weight to the memory, no sense of surety, and although he would cling to it for a long while, eventually he would lose faith and let it fall.
He woke fully to himself several hours into the day, and found that a nervous young servant was waiting with a bowl of plain rice and some dried fish, which he ate while sitting outside and glaring at unsuspecting passers-by by way of amusement. The sky seemed oddly overcast with a high pale mist that did less to obscure the light than to scatter it, so that the world was filled with a dry white radiance. The columns of smoke from cookfires stood smudged against it like charcoal.
‘The general have any messages for me?’ he asked the boy, hopefully, but he only shrugged and said he did not think so. Kurogane sighed, and continued to pull faces at anyone who dared to make eye contact. He was full of a restless energy, quivering like a dog before thunder. That fragile clarity from the day before had not faded, and he had besides something of a sense for war, some prophetic comprehension of the patterns of violence: and so he was surprised only in the most cursory of ways when he heard the first shout.
‘What was that?’ the boy asked, looking up from the game of dice that he was playing against himself and frowning. ‘Did you – did you hear something just now?’
Kurogane was already standing up. ‘I’m going to need you to help me into my armour,’ he said. ‘And then you’re going to go and find your sword.’
‘I - I’m an archer, actually,’ the boy stammered, tripping over his own feet as he hurried into the tent after Kurogane.
‘Then find a bow!’ Kurogane snapped, already shrugging his cuirass over one shoulder. ‘Now shut your mouth and get me into this.’
The boy had barely finished buckling the straps into place when a soldier fairly threw herself into the tent, panting. ‘Sir, we’re under attack,’ she said, ‘a force from the north-east, they’ve gotten past the ditches and they’re firing the tents – the general says you’re to be moved to safety – sir –’
Kurogane reached for Ginryuu. Pain bent his fingers back, and he dropped it with a grunt and a curl of his lip. The boy looked away, embarrassed: the girl stared openly. Kurogane stared down at his hand, at the brown spots and ugly veins, the three fingers that listed badly to one side all swollen and pale along the joints. He reached again for Ginryuu. The pain was so bad that his hand shook, but he did not let go. He lifted his sword and strapped it to his side, met the girl’s eyes as the shouting outside grew louder.
He said, ‘Tell the general I’ll do as I please.’
He met the first wave of attackers in the middle of what had been a campfire circle, kicked up a cloud of ash and came charging through the smoke as they clutched at their stinging eyes, separated tendons from bones. It was easy, even after all these years: skill more than made up for the strength he lacked, and he no longer had anything to prove, no fear to distract him or zealotry to deceive him, no overreaching rage or unsteadying pride. He had only two small tasks, to defend and to survive. Fire flared red under that strange white sky, and he followed the stench of it to the worst of the war: headed for the heart of it, shoved his way selfishly to the frontlines, used his inhuman hand to snatch a burning tentpole out of the way and bludgeon an oncoming boy who had wide dark eyes and a bad nosebleed. The child fell, and Kurogane stepped over him and cut the throat of another, used the hilt to drive the wind out of a third, strode forward with the breaking of bone and the brunt of his own stubbornness, cleared a path through sheer force of will. He could not remember time when his enemies had not seemed so young.
Still that clarity would not leave him, even as he thundered down the narrow alleyways of black dust shoulder to shoulder with a surging force of shoving strength: the edge of every tent seemed sharp as a sword, the lines of every oncoming face, the cracks in every tooth he broke and hand he smashed. Even through the loud distorted smudge of sound that shadowed his sight he could see spots of red scattering bright as blood flew. His chest was so thick with agony that he half believed his armour to have been carved of stone, but his limbs felt lighter than they had in years: he struck out swift and unwavering even as his breath whined in his throat, pushed and pushed against the pain in his hand and was rewarded with the scrape and shine of steel clashing strong against steel.
Someone darted in under his guard, a middle-aged women with square sturdy shoulders and a face he rather thought he might have liked had he met her in friendship, and caught him a clever blow with the butt of her snake-headed spear. He doubled over, sick to his stomach, and staggered as she brought her fists down on his shoulders. He tasted mud as she pressed her foot into the nape of his neck. The next second he had struck out with Ginryuu and slashed her badly across the back of the leg: missed hamstringing her by a hair, stole seconds nonetheless to scramble away and heave himself back onto his feet. Her face was twisted with pain, but she grinned at him all the same, wiped blood from her face and levelled her blade. He was not as quick as he had been: she saw him coming and moved to parry: but his strength was enough to knock her back off her feet, and the blow to the back of her head left her twitching on a pile of old crates. He let her lie and did not finish the job, less out of mercy than respect. That was something else old age had taught him.
He was close enough to the front of the fighting by this point to begin to recognise officers’ insignia, and so he was not surprised when from out of the clamour all around he heard his name shouted loud and exasperated in a voice he knew well. Soon enough, there was a back pressed closed against his, and he grinned almost fondly as he caught sight of the flicker of a long red-hilted blade out of the corner of his eye.
‘The hell are you doing out of bed, old man?’ Tohru demanded over her shoulder.
‘Saving your ass,’ he snapped, and gave a great kick to the chest of an unwary assailant. ‘Where’d our new friends come from, anyway?’
‘Think they thought they could take the camp by surprise. They underestimated our scouts. I knew they’d be coming an hour ago.’
Kurogane swung round, suddenly, to cut off the impetus of an attack from his right, and behind him Tohru stumbled, had to struggle to right herself, could not quite match his pace. He gave a small resigned smirk and nudged her back onto his feet. ‘This looks a hell of a lot like a main force,’ he observed, pausing a moment to catch his breath.
‘About three quarters of it, yeah,’ Tohru agreed. ‘If we take them out, and if that husband of yours can get rid of their weather mage, we’ll be heading home tomorrow evening.’
‘Then why are we standing around talking?’ Kurogane demanded: drew in a deep wheezing breath against the pain, lifted his sword back into place.
That they had already all but won was clear, even from his position on the ground: this had been a desperate assault and one ill-planned, the result of a last unwise desire to catch them off-guard, and it had been easy to overwhelm them and put them to flight. Routing parties had been organised half an hour before, Tohru told him in between blows, and the country thereabouts was open terrain, and would provide little place for a scattered army to seek shelter. Kurogane barely heard her. That sense of being off-balance without Fai behind him still unsettled him, and he had to work hard to compensate for the lack of that easy strength at his back, but he thought all the same that it might be worth it. A childlike loss of worry had come over him, quite unprompted: nothing like exhilaration, not in the face of bloodshed, not now, but a sense of acceptance. He had had his time as a young man, had come running at the smell of fire, had ruined flesh and shattered bone for the glory of it.
He was glad to have that behind him, even if he had traded away his strength over the course of many years to find peace. He was glad to be an old man: he was glad to do battle only for the sake of those he loved, to fight small wars and return home to small victories, glad, perhaps, now, at the end of his life, to spend less time holding a sword and more time asleep in a friend’s lap. It was the little battles that Fai had fought daily against himself, and that Kurogane had learned to lose against the world, that had won in the end the greatest triumphs. They had not learned to love each other through cataclysms and conjurings, through raucous adventures and grand escapades. They had not learned to love each other through of the loss of an arm or an eye or a child. It had been the between-things, the things at once too large and too small to be spoken: a drunken argument in a room lit by lanterns, a saving parry of a stranger’s weapon, the stain of self-spilled blood on steel and a three-day bruise, a flash of bright hair under sunlight: a song on a street-corner, a conversation in a desert. This was the age he had grown and the shape of their lives. Even without Fai there beside him, Kurogane grinned, suddenly, and heaved out a long sigh. He was not afraid of weakness, not anymore.
Something cold touched the back of his neck, and he looked up, dazzled by the brightness of the sky. There was a curious taste all about: he had spent so long breathing in magic that it took him a while to recognise the scent of clean air and cold cloud. A little breeze had picked up, dispelling that terrible heat that had lain on him like a fever for so many weeks, and suddenly there came a great gust of wind, and on it the bitterness of rust. A snowflake landed on the back of his hand.
‘He did it,’ he said, quietly: laughed, wide and breathless. ‘That bastard actually did it.’
It was a simple victory, after that: the better of the camp had not been touched, and the work of flushing them out was easy. Tohru personally accompanied him back to his tent after the worst of it was won, and very graciously chose not to scold him when he had to resort to leaning on her shoulder.
‘We’ve got six days of travel ahead of us after tomorrow,’ she told him instead, waving away various officers who were trying to report to her, ‘and if you don’t spend the next forty-eight in bed I swear I will strap you into a wagon at the back of the baggage train like a sack of millet. You’re in no condition to sit a horse right now.’
‘Then I’ll walk like a normal human being,’ Kurogane snapped, but not too harshly. She was brave and she was strong and she was brash, and so he rather liked her: and besides, she was Tomoyo’s blood. They made their way through the busy camp, which was all ablur with noise and urgency. As they reached his tent, he made a great show of shoving her away, muttered, ‘Leave the nagging for that dreamseer girlfriend of yours.’
He was rewarded by the sight of two spots of red flaring up high on her cheeks before she glanced away to hide a grin. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said, looking absurdly pleased: turned hastily to hail an incoming group of soldiers. ‘Umi! About time you lot showed up –’
The snow had not yet begun to stick to the ground, and for the most part had done little more than muddy the earth. A winding-sheet had been scrounged up out of somewhere to cover the bier slung low between hands, some rough greyish stuff that must once have been bedding or a banner, scribbled now with chilly mud. Its contents seemed strangely flat: it would have seemed empty if not for the bright edge of golden hair at one end.
‘Shit,’ Umi muttered, stepping forward with an arm outstretched, as though to ward danger from something precious. ‘Suwa-dono, wait – I don’t think you should –’
The snow kept falling. Kurogane’s heart stuttered, once, briefly, as though he had stumbled a step in the depths of sleep. The blurred murmur of the camp hung grey at the edge of sight. From somewhere he could hear the rhythmic singing of struck iron as someone shoed a horse, the garbled edge of someone making a report about broken weaponry. Like metal to magnets he moved to that pale line of brightness in the grey. His blood pulsed so heavy he could feel it in the palm of his hand, in the thick of his throat, in the sudden violent blow of fear that cracked his chest. He needed his heart to stop beating: he needed the world to stand still. He did not want to see. He did not want to understand.
‘Who?’ he said, numb, perfunctory. ‘Who was it – how –?’
Umi lifted one hand helplessly, looked away. ‘The weather mage,’ she said. ‘He’s dead, too. They killed each other.’
There was a terrible sound coming from somewhere, a loud rattling rise and fall like breath. His head had gone hot. His jaw shook fit to shatter. Still he could not see.
‘They killed each other! He’s already avenged himself! There’s nothing left to do!’ Umi screamed, and he did not understand why until he looked down, caught off-guard by a shockingly bad pain, and saw that his bent bloody man-killing hand had curled itself around his swordhilt.
The pain was too great: he dropped his sword, old arthritic fingers curving back on themselves like a terrified animal. He was nodding, dumbly, as he looked about, at the ground, at the sky, at the broken slats of a barrel scattered in the mud. That terrible rattling groan choked and died as he drew in a breath, and he pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, still nodding. He did not know what else to do. An incandescent fury rose in him, some great surge of noise and light, an ugly flame that lifted his lungs in a single stricken shout: but it faltered and fell almost in the instant it began, and then there was nothing left. One of the men carrying the bier shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, and it jostled the winding-sheet, so that the head lolled forward and that pale hair caught the light, and it was the smallest things that were the cruellest, and at last Kurogane understood.
‘Give him to me.’
‘Hey, just – look, just come away, come sit down –’
‘I said give him to me.’
He was no weight at all, and still warm.
His throat had been cut, clumsily: the wound was ragged as the edge of a mirror. Kurogane carried him into the dimness of the tent: let the flaps fall shut, settled him down in their bed. He would need to find a healer who could lay a charm against corruption on the meat, he thought, idly, for they were a week from home, and even in this fresh cold the body would not keep. He turned to ask Fai how people were buried, back in Celes, but Fai was not there. He went instead to the washstand, found an old shirt he had torn and flung aside, employed both in the long process of bathing the body. They were both soldiers, he thought, rough with himself as his hands was gentle: they should both have known that this was a risk, the makeshift ceremonies of a campsite death, the grey scum of twice-boiled rainwater in a tin bucket. It was very dark in the tent, but that ragged line of red clung to his vision and flickered in front of his eyes as a lurid afterimage.
He found one of his own yukata at the bottom of his pack, some lightweight grey thing he had worn in the evenings when the heat grew too great, and, once he had scrubbed the blood away, he wrapped the body in it. He made himself touch the edges of the wound, the line of the jaw, the slackness of the lips. Once or twice he felt a crackle of static, and flinched back. The gears in his left hand sparked in protest, and a sudden arc of light left a little split in the palm of the artificial skin, laying bare the black lonely steel beneath the crack. It was only the last of the magic leaving the body, but it felt like fault. Smoke coiled from the crack as the magic flared out: wrote itself briefly into a rune Kurogane had never learned to read, pulled itself apart and threaded away on the air. Struck by a grotesque curiosity, he cupped the head carefully in one hand and pushed back an eyelid. A great sputter of sparks resulted, and when they cleared, he could see that the iris had been drained of all colour, blank and bland as a fish’s eye.
He drew back, revolted. He had handled any number of corpses, and in a way, this was no different: there was a simplicity to the stillness of death, nothing unnatural, nothing unexpected. Still it horrified him. His mother had been this still, this simple. His mother had had mud in her hands and blood in her collarbones, and her hair had reeked of smoke. He had left fire behind: he had not thought to fear the smell of snow.
He kept looking around for him, plagued by that same sense of being off-balance he had had in battle: he had never known pain like this without Fai close by, and nearly panicked at the sheer illogicality of having to face it without him. He did not know whether death would call him home by his day-name, or whether it would remember that other, quieter, darker name, the name that had been left behind in a snowbound valley to echo a great height. Even the air that had held that name had been undone: the world that had heard it last was gone. He did not know whether to burn the body or bury it, whether magic ought to be involved, which gods to call upon. They had never discussed it. They had never thought this would happen, not in a petty struggle with some nameless mage-for-hire, not in the hard-won quiet of their old age. They had not travelled universes for this.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ he confessed.
He wondered if ghosts could survived the unbuilding of their world, if a small boy with blue eyes had cried out with love and longing and hurried to give his brother back his name. He doubted it. He wondered instead if his own mother had not perhaps lingered, and whether she would be willing to watch over her son-in-law for a little while, to take his hand and tell him stories to pass the time between lives. He hoped that she would be kind. There was something thick and bloody swelling in his throat, some roughness of red balling up behind his eyes. That terrible rattling noise had started up again, that rasping heaving wail, and this time he could not stop himself. He scrubbed at his eyes, felt them well up hot again, and realised that he was sobbing. He slipped down lengthwise against the body, put his imbalanced hands about bone, his palms to pale skin: pressed his face to the hollow where the heart should beat.
Fai looked a great deal older in death.
The worst of the snowstorm had eased off overnight, but towards dawn a plummetous black snap of cold had stilled the world for nearly an hour, and had left the ground ringing white and treacherous. The trees stood bare as burnt finger bones against the pale air, wholly unmoving: the wind had dropped in the wake of the storm, and only the far-off piping plovers in the early morning broke the silence. A grave lay beneath the branches of the farthest tree, in the shelter of an old stone wall. It was clearly a family plot. The larger stele had stood there for nearly fifty years: Kurogane had not visisted it all for a very long time, in his youth, but had gradually grown into the habit of praying at it every month, sometimes more. Beside it, a smaller, newer stele had been set, blooming with a blur of red.
They had burnt him, in the end, and stained the heavy grey of the storm with billowing black. No one knew what else to do. Kurogane had picked bone from burnt bone, had identified finger and heel and hip cracked and blackened amid cloudy ash, had counted them rattling into their fat enamelled urn. He had been given a death-name, in token of the rank he had held and the services he had performed, the studious devotion with which he had worked to weave himself into the lives of strangers: and after the characters had been cut neatly into stone, a hole had been cut neatly into earth, each nearly as hard as the other, and he had been covered over with mud and snow. In a few days a mason would measure out a slab of some smooth stone and slot it slow into the soil. They could not offer him anything else. It there had once been any gods to object, or any spirits to appease, they had been broken along with his home.
Beside the name Yuui, in unkind red, was written You-ou.
Kurogane went first to his parents’ grave. He stood there a long time. When he moved on to the smaller stele, he did not touch it: did not kneel before it, did not speak, did not weep.
Tomoyo was waiting for him a little way away, at the head of the path that wound down between the willows. She stood alone and very small in the white, her old eyes red-rimmed but steady, her smile soft. Kurogane knelt before her, old knees knocking in the snow, and pressed her cold hands between his own. She put her arms around his shoulders and kissed the top of his forehead. He clung to her like a child.
‘Welcome back,’ she said.